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AN OVERVIEW OF THE FORT TEJON ERA
Fort Tejon as it was in 1860's
Fort Tejon as it was in 1860

By Bonnie Ketterl Kane

Fort Tejon was founded at the top of Grapevine Canyon in August of 1854. The trail through the canyon had become a popular roadway with the discovery of gold in California . The purpose of the Fort was to guard this well-traveled mountain pass – the only north/south route through the center of the new state – and for the protection of the Indian Reservation at the bottom of Grapevine Canyon .

Company A of the First Dragoons was the first unit to arrive. They had with them some forty-three civilian laborers that had been hired as they traveled south from the Headquarters of the Department of the Pacific at Benicia Barracks in Northern California . Arriving with Company A was Colonel Joseph Mansfield who wrote:

“There is but little American population in the southern end of this valley (the San Joaquin Valley ) that needs protection, but the friendly Indians number over two thousand.”

The Dragoons were a Regiment of the U.S. Army formed in 1832 when Congress authorized a Battalion of six companies of mounted rangers to go west and protect the frontier. These were the first mounted units trained to fight on horseback, as previous to this U. S. Cavalry would dismount their horses to do battle. During and after the Mexican War, various units of the First Dragoons were scattered throughout the West. They were a colorful battalion armed with a percussion lock carbine, a specially designed Dragoon Colt six shooter and a heavy curved sabre .

The civilians that traveled to the location when they heard that a Fort was to be built, became clerks, millwrights, masons, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, carpenters, teamsters, expressmen , hunters and herdsmen. Many local Indians were hired to make the adobe bricks used in the construction of the buildings, a skill that was learned and passed on from living at the missions in the early 1800's.

The boundaries of the Fort Tejon were to extend down Grapevine Canyon to the north and to include Castac Lake (now known as Tejon Lake ) to the south though it seems those distances were not enforced. The usual civilian community developed just to the south of the Fort where workers and eventually families lived. A lumber mill was established in the area of the present Frazier Park to bring down logs from the mountain and lumber to the Fort.

The fast flowing mountain stream provided water for the inhabitants, construction, cooking and the wildlife of the area. Grizzly bears often visited the camp. As the site had long been a travelers rest the post doctor, William Edgar wrote that the location had been:

“ a great rendezvous for grizzly bears which infested the surrounding mountains. When the acorns are ripe, and for the first few days after the command was encamped here, it was visited nightly by a very large grizzly, which generally stampeded all the horses and mules in camp, until he found out that the carbines and musketoons , of the soldiers were dangerous. This locality, although a great resort for bears, has also been a great slaughter ground for them, as evidenced by the great number of bear skulls that were to be seen lying around, for within a hundred yards or so from my tent I collected and threw into a pile a dozen or more in one day after arriving on the grounds.”

In June of 1855 Captain John Tudor Gardiner and Captain Ralph Kirkham arrived to assume command of Company A. They brought with them their families – the first families known to occupy the Fort. Within about four months after their arrival both of the captains' wives gave birth to children – the first white babies recorded to have been born in the remote area.

A post store or commissary provided the desired provisions to the people of the Fort and community with supplies and mail delivered weekly from the ports of Los Angeles . The Fort also became a popular stop for freight wagons and passenger stages. Social events were held and a regimental brass band was formed. It was reported that on the third of July the band was seen traveling from San Francisquito Canyon across the Santa Clara Valley and that they were: “resplendent in the uniform of the Dragoons”. They performed at the Independence Day festivities in the Pueblo of Los Angeles.

The Dragoons of Fort Tejon were called for the peaceful settlement of numerous problems through the surrounding area, to chase gangs of bandits and to show force when needed at the Indian Reserve. Their first major conflict was up north in the Four Creeks area of the Tule River when the soldiers were sent to help settle a dispute between settlers and Indians there. It seems they arrived after the fact but did lose one man when his horse fell when crossing a snow-melt, swollen river.

In December of 1856 Companies H and I arrived from the territories of New Mexico and Arizona and Companies A and B (Company B had arrived in June of 1855) were transferred to the north. Much to their dismay, the new units had settled in just in time to experience the severest earthquake to ever hit California . On the cold morning of January 9 th , 1857 , the approximately 8 point (according to today's measurements) shook the men from their bunks and buildings. A number of pre-shocks had given warning and the after shocks added greatly to the damage done to the buildings. The only loss of life in the sparsely populated area was in the future area of Gorman where a woman died when a beam fell on her. Newspaper accounts trace the effects of the quake from sea captains off the coast of Santa Barbara to the Colorado River , and from San Diego to San Francisco .

It was the duty of the Fort's surgeon to daily record the weather and events of nature as they might show reason for affecting the health of those stationed at the post. Throughout the year following the quake Dr. Ten Broeck recorded an average of thirty shocks a month decreasing in number to six per month almost two years later – possibly accounting for the numerous desertions in 1857 and 58.

Needless to say, following the earthquake, the men were forced back into the tents they had first used when establishing the Fort. The adobe buildings were repaired and reconstructed. In the years that followed, Fort Tejon and the nearby settlement became one of the major population, social and civic centers of the Central and Southern California inland areas. The women of the Fort organized a chapter of the “ Dashaway Society” , an organization then prevalent on the West Coast. Their purpose was to dash away intoxicating liquor from the lips of those who were dependent on it.

In November of 1857 Fort Tejon gained the rare distinction of reluctantly accepting a caravan of camels as a part of its garrison. It had long been thought that camels would be useful by the military and on the roadways of the southwest. When the anticipated animals of the United States Army Camel Corp arrived the men soon found they had no skills in handling them – even though they came with an “instruction manual” . The beasts were kept in a far-off canyon across from the Fort and ignored as much as possible. A few did master the use of them, with help from those who where hired to come from the Middle East with the camels, but they were only occasionally used.

In October of 1858 the first “over-land” stage arrived at Fort Tejon – all the way from St. Louis . This monumental event should have been welcomed with cheers of excitement except that it went through in the middle of the night. The three weeks of travel between St. Louis and the Fort, and a cost of $200, caused most travelers to continue to come or leave by ship through the port of San Pedro .

A more important connection to the rest of the United States came in August of 1860 when telegraph lines were completed to Fort Tejon . They ran from the Atlantic to the Pacific opening a new world of convenience. Some fifty teams of mules and numerous men were hired to haul and install the heavy square, redwood poles, weighing about 250 pounds each, through the mountain passes.

As our nation's Civil War was beginning in 1861, California was experiencing a great deal of separation in this state as well. The Department of the Pacific felt it would be more advantageous to have the troops from Fort Tejon moved to the Los Angeles/San Pedro area where the civil unrest was the greatest. Residents of the Tejon area petitioned the government to allow the troops to remain in the Pass but to no avail. In June of 1861 the entire garrison, except for three men who were left to guard the buildings, left Fort Tejon . The town of Tejon for the most part, dissipated as well, though a few were known to have stayed and settled in the area.

The winter of 1861-62 was one of the wettest ever recorded in California history. It was written that fifty inches of rain fell in the area of Los Angeles turning the valleys into lakes. The wet winter storms took their toll on the abandoned buildings of Fort Tejon .

In July of 1863 the decaying buildings of the Fort were once again occupied. The Second Cavalry of the California Volunteers had been ordered to move about one thousand Paiute Indians from the Owens Valley to the Indian Reservation near Fort Tejon . As the then owner of the reservation lands, Edward F. Beale, strongly objected to the placement of this group of Indians on his land, that was no longer serving as a government reservation, the Native People were brought to the Fort. Their encampment was to the north of the Fort where they suffered greatly from the cold and lack of food.

By the summer of 1864 a good number of the Indians had fled the area or had died. Permission was finally granted to move the rest of the people to the Tule Indian Reserve up north where there was sufficient food and land to sustain them. The buildings of Fort Tejon once again stood empty until they became housing and corrals for Edward Beale's Tejon Ranch operations, as he then owned that property as well.

It didn't take long for the buildings to fall into disrepair and disuse. In 1920 efforts were begun to save Fort Tejon . The movement was started by the Bakersfield Women's Club. Tejon Ranch quickly responded and the lands of the Fort were turned over and accepted by the County of Kern . In the early 1930's organizations in Kern County persuaded the State of California to accept the site of Fort Tejon for a state park. Restoration studies were done through the 1930's and restoration on two of the buildings was begun in the 1940's. Fortunately the restored buildings and grounds remain well cared for as one of California 's State Historic Parks, a tribute to those who established it and protected these mountain passes so long ago.

Additional information may be found in "A View from the Ridge Route" series